Why The Vatican Is Being So Weird About The Pope’s Meeting With Kim Davis, According To An Expert

CREDIT: David Maialetti/The Philadelphia Inquirer, AP, Pool

UPDATE: A day after this post was published, the Vatican announced that the meeting between Kim Davis and Pope Francis “should not be considered a form of support of her position.” Their statement did not clarify the original impetus for the meeting, but their explanation lends credence to some of the theories posited below.

News broke Tuesday evening that during Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States, the pontiff briefly met with Kim Davis, a Kentucky clerk jailed for refusing to issue same-sex couples marriage licenses. Reports of the rendezvous, which most outlets agree occurred although the Vatican still refuses to formally confirm it, riled both progressive and conservative supporters of Francis.

Some — including Davis — saw the rendezvous as an implicit show of support for the clerk’s cause, a shocking move from a pope who maintains the Catholic Church’s opposition to homosexual relationships but has taken pains to avoid wading into culture wars. Writers such as Crux’s John Allen framed the incident as an example of how Francis doesn’t fit neatly into any of America’s tidy political categories. But many Catholic commentators were quick to warn against drawing any firm conclusions about the meeting, which was reportedly arranged by Vatican officials and not American bishops. In an essay for America magazine, a Jesuit publication, prominent Catholic writer James Martin noted that unless the Vatican explicitly frames the meeting as an endorsement of Davis, people shouldn’t overlay their own beliefs over the pope’s actions.

“Not to put too fine a point on it, but Pope Francis also met Mark Wahlberg, and that does not mean that he liked ‘Ted,’” Martin wrote, referencing the Boston-born actor’s widely-panned film featuring a talking bear.

Information about the exchange between the Holy Father and Davis has been sparse, provided almost entirely by Davis and her lawyers, who saw it as a formal approval of her actions. National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters called for the Vatican to reveal more information about the meeting on Thursday, arguing that the lack of details could taint of the pope’s otherwise successful trip to the United States.

“Someone needs to say something or we will only know what Ms. Davis and her lawyers want us to know,” he wrote. “The rest will be speculation, endless speculation … If the pope was badly served by his staff, let that be known. If the pope was badly served by himself, let that be known. But, neither the bishops nor the Vatican can afford to let this fester another minute.”

To get more insight about the possible reasons for the secret meeting, ThinkProgress spoke with Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. Reese — who, like Pope Francis, is a Jesuit priest — helped break down the Vatican’s unusual caginess about the meet up, and offered some hints as to what it could mean.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why, exactly, is the Vatican being so weird about this meeting between Pope Francis and Kim Davis?

There are two possibilities. One is that somebody brought her to the Vatican embassy here in Washington and simply presented her to the pope without much internal discussion.

So basically, “Hello pope, here’s this lady who was a conscientious objector, isn’t that sad?” And the pope said “Oh, courage [to you], God bless you. Here’s a rosary!”

That view is supported to some extent by the very minimal — really, almost nothing — explanation of the visit by the Vatican. If the Vatican wanted to make a point, they know how to make a point. But this has been so downplayed: The Vatican’s response was about as low-level as you can possibly get. They didn’t even [technically] say it happened!

Now, that kind of raises red flags that says maybe even the Vatican thinks this meeting was a mistake — that’s one theory.

Is that what happened?

Well, let’s go back a bit. Typically, the Vatican leaves decisions about how to relate to a local government [during a papal visit] to local bishops. This is not micro-managed by Rome. They figure the bishops know the local situation, and they make the decision for how to interact. And the Vatican typically is supportive of whatever the bishops decide to do. They’re not going to go to a country and undercut the bishops and their relationship to the local government — that just wouldn’t be nice, and wouldn’t be proper.

On the other hand, the particular fights that the local bishops have with their government aren’t necessarily a high priority for the Vatican. For example, when [U.S. Secretary of State] John Kerry met with his counterpart in the Vatican, they spent almost the hour and a half talking about international issues — the Middle East, refugees, peace, reconciliation, those kinds of things. At one point during the meeting, the Vatican’s Secretary of State says to Kerry, “We have to bring up the bishop’s concern of religious freedom.”

Kerry’s response was, “Yes, I know you do.” [laughter]

That was the extent of the discussion. It was about five minutes. But when the press release came out, it included a line about that … And that’s what everyone reported on, even though the Vatican is on the same page with the U.S. with all these other issues. The media didn’t know that only five minutes were devoted to the topic, and that it was with a wink and a nod.

[So this supports the first] hypothesis that the pope had no idea what was going on [when he met with Davis]. The USCCB is saying that they had nothing to do with it. But it could have been one or two bishops who thought this would have been a good thing to do … Since the pope leads through actions, then meeting with this pope could have been seen as support.

So what’s the other theory?

The other hypothesis is that the pope could have known [the situation with Davis], but he doesn’t give it the same high priority as other things.

There’s no explanation, no, “this is what this meeting means,” from the Vatican. The Vatican may have seen this as supporting the U.S. Bishops in the lightest possible way, and I have no idea which one is really the truth — maybe, both are true!

It’s like reading tea-leaves when you’re dealing with the Vatican, because they don’t always explain what they’re doing, and it’s not like Washington … There are probably not more than a dozen people — maximum — who were involved in this meeting [between the pope and Davis], and none of them are talking.

And since the Vatican won’t talk about it, this story will end, probably in a week — except with activists on both sides.

In January, the Vatican also refused to confirm a meeting between the pope and a transgender man, even though it was widely covered in the press. Do you see parallels between that and the Vatican’s treatment of the Kim Davis meeting?

Yeah… You know, part of Pope Francis’ DNA is to be compassionate to whoever is in front of him in the moment. One moment it might be an LGBT person, the next it could be a prisoner.

That is simply who Pope Francis is: he relates to whoever is directly in front of him, without any policy implications.

Is there a difference between the Kim Davis meet up and the pope’s visit with the Little Sisters of the Poor, which is suing the Obama administration for allegedly violating their religious freedom by including the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act?

Absolutely a difference. The former, the Little Sisters of the Poor, was much more of a conscious decision [by the pope and the Vatican]. But again, it was done in a way that wasn’t “in your face” to the Obama administration. Pope Francis just went to see the Little Sisters of the Poor — these nice ladies who take care of old people.

It’s like when the pope was in Palestine and leaned his head against the wall and prayed — but he said absolutely nothing. [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu would cringe, but how can you attack a man for praying?

Kim Davis symbolizes the continual last-ditch fight against gay marriage [in the United States], one that people are simply not going to give up. And I think that’s why it was so hurtful to the LGBT community.

And I’m not sure the pope realized how that would have been interpreted. He just probably thought “This is someone persecuted for their religious beliefs, isn’t that sad?”

Any other differences you see?

The final thing I would say is that, for Pope Francis, [the same-sex marriage debate] is kind of “been there done that.” In Argentina, when this whole fight about gay marriage came up, he was one of the few voices among the [Argentinian] bishops who didn’t just want to fight gay marriage, but actually proposed an alternative. And he proposed some sort of domestic partnership [compromise] … but he lost among the bishops on that. It was the only vote he ever lost among the bishops in Argentina. This, of course, was all behind closed doors. (Editor’s note: This history has been discussed by journalists and biographers of Pope Francis)

So [after he was outvoted], he supported the bishop’s conference publicly, thinking let’s stick together on this. Now — they lost too, and gay marriage is now legal in Argentina! But he did not continue to fight gay marriage [in Argentina]. Unlike the bishops in the United States, it was “okay, we lost, let’s move on.”

He had other priorities, like the poor.

One final question: Is it normal for the Vatican to give out rosaries, like the pope did for Kim Davis and her husband?

Oh yeah. They must have thousands and thousands of rosaries that they give out. He did that at the prison … They give them to journalists. They’re just a nice thing the Vatican does.